It was the same kind of feeling when UCLA lost to Washington, 82-70, Saturday in Seattle.
UCLA sent its kids to the home of the Huskies, and they contracted the same virus as the Husky players suffer from – playing too fast and out of control. The problem is, UCLA's young team is inordinately vulnerable to the virus; when they catch it, it's potentially lethal.
UCLA played right into the hands of Washington, adopting their frenetic pace, which resulted in a whopping 23 turnovers. Freshman point guard Jordan Farmar had probably his second-worst game of the season, committing 8 of those turnovers while forcing passes and over-dribbling. Freshman shooting guard Arron Afflalo wasn't much better, especially in the over-dribbling department, finishing with four turnovers and just five points, on 2-of-8 shooting. Taking Brian Morrison into an environment like that – with a Washington team that plays at hyper speed and a pumped-up crowd – is like taking a recovering crack addict into a crack house. To put it simply, he relapsed, with some of the worst, out-of-control sequences in recent memory.
Putting the game in perspective, though, there were some positives to take away from it. It's difficult to know if the positives indicate a trend or whether it's just more of the randomness of life, and college basketball and certain matchups. Because this is all so fickle, you wouldn't want to jinx the trend, but it certainly seems like this UCLA team is starting to play better, more consistent defense over its last two games. Against Washington, the defense wasn't bad at all, and at times, bordered on relatively good. They held Washington to just 37% shooting for the game, which was also helped since Washington didn't shoot the ball very well. But generally UCLA's interior D was sound and its perimeter defense was active enough to stay with its man and close out on shooters. There were a couple of lapses, but they weren't too much to expect from a young team playing on the road against the allegedly best team in the conference, one that definitely had a superiority in athleticism. One of the big goals of the game was to limit Washington's ability to score in transition, and that was generally successful. UCLA mostly limited Washington to a half-court game. When it induced Washington's Bobby Jones to be the one to shoot threes, and not Tre Simmons, Nate Robinson or Will Conroy (all of whom shoot over 40% from three), it was exactly what UCLA wanted to happen. It was just against the odds that Jones actually made his threes, previously being a 35% shooter from three-point range this season. Simmons, the Huskies' leading scorer, was held to almost six points below his game average.
The one player that really stepped up to beat the Bruins was Brandon Roy, who scored 20 and had 13 rebounds, and did it merely because he's such a superior athlete to anyone on UCLA's roster. He has a lightning-quick first step, and once he's by his defender, his athleticism allows him to finish easily in the lane, and then rebound in the lane. He had 5 offensive rebounds for the game. In fact, the athletic Huskies had a mind-blowing 22 offensive rebounds as a team, while only having 21 defensive rebounds. They out-rebounded UCLA overall, 43-34, which is understandable since they are the best rebounding team in the conference (UCLA is second, which is truly one of the best takeaways from this season, given UCLA's lack of athleticism and two 6-11 centers who don't average even 5 rebounds a game each).
So, while UCLA kept Simmons under control, pretty much limited Nate Robinson, and shut down any production from Washington's interior, Jones stepped up to hit his threes, which any team in the country would allow him to take, and Roy busted out. Hey, when you play a team that has this much talent, these kind of things are going to happen.
But could this be a defensive trend? UCLA now has played two of its best defensive games of the season back-to-back, and they did it without seemingly have to siphon off energy from its offense. The Bruins were, in fact, cold offensively in both of the last two games against Washington and Washington State, but their defense for the most part maintained its intensity and played well. Limiting Washington to just 37% for the game was the second-best field goal percentage defense yet this year (and it's questionable if you want to count the best, which came against Western Illinois, 36%). This came against the #13-ranked team in the country on their home court, a team averaging 46% from the field for the season. And it was a defensive performance that followed a good one against Washington State, in which UCLA allowed just 40% shooting from the field. In just terms of field-goal percentage defense, it was the best two consecutive games UCLA has played all season.
We've said all year that a team's success – regardless of how talented they are – is based on defense. If you play good defense, you'll be in every game. That axiom certainly held true against Washington on Saturday; UCLA's defense definitely kept them in the game. Without it, if UCLA had broken down and played poor, lackadaisical defense, the game very well could have been a 25-point blow-out. There were times you sensed it possibly heading that direction, but then UCLA's defense accomplished a couple of stops and kept them within striking range. In fact, UCLA was very much in this game and easily could have won it with just a few minutes remaining. There were stretches when, if UCLA had gotten hot offensively, hit a couple of open shots they had, they easily could have gone ahead of the Huskies. Heck, if they would have just had the same kind of shooting performance from Brian Morrison as they did in the first game against Washington, UCLA wins this one, too (Morrison had 19 in the first game and just six Saturday, so there's your margin of victory). When Farmar went up for an open, breakaway dunk and had his shot blocked from behind by Roy because the freshman point guard didn't use his body to shield any potential defenders, it was a huge turnaround. There was 4:30 left in the game, and if Farmar finishes that dunk UCLA is within five at 69-64. But a few seconds later, Jones hit a three-pointer and completde a dramatic five-point swing that gave Washington the ten-point cushion it rode to the end of the game.
Overall, though, it's difficult to come down hard on the freshmen. Farmar, really, has had a stellar freshman season. He's averaging 12 points and 5.2 assists per game, and is playing far too many minutes as a freshman. As long as he continues to play improved defense, which is his weakness, you have to forgive him an occasional 8-turnover outing this season. The same goes for Afflalo who, as a freshman, has had to guard the opposing team's best player every game, which is a draining responsibility. Josh Shipp, actually, had a very good game against Washington, going for 20 points and hitting a couple of big threes when seemingly no one else on the team could shoot from the outside (Farmar was the only other player to hit a three-pointer, the team going 3-for-11 for the game). It really is a matter of patience when it comes to the UCLA freshmen. They've had a few bumps in the road this season, but have played remarkably well for the minutes they've played, with all three of them having to start. The time they've put in this season, and the experience of going over those road bumps will pay off big dividends in the next few years.
It was also a very big positive that senior Dijon Thompson played well, finishing with 22 points and six rebounds, while limiting his turnovers to 2. He didn't seem to get caught up nearly as much in the hyper-active Husky pace, and he continued to play hard on defense, despite being physically overmatched at times. It's very encouraging for the rest of the season that Thompson has clearly demonstrated now that those two poor games against the Bay Area schools are the aberration and not the norm.
Against Washington, UCLA had a chance to win because of its defense. It played the conference-leading team, one who has vastly superior talent and experience, on its home court to a close game, after beating them at Pauley Pavilion. The game was an encouraging indication that possibly this young UCLA team has learned to play intensely on defense even when its offense is sputtering. It's really its only chance of winning the games it must the rest the season if it hopes to make the NCAA tournament, and possibly stealing a win or two it shouldn't.
And overall, the game signified generally an optimistic future for the UCLA program. An out-manned UCLA team can play a far more talented Washington team close, and also beat it, because of coaching and discipline. Not to take anything away from the Washington program and Lorenzo Romar, who has done a very good job in building the Husky program, but you have to ask yourself: Is this the best they got? This is probably the best Husky team we've seen in recent years and it will probably be the best we'll see for a while, given the talent it will probably lose and who it has coming in (betting that Martell Webster opts for the pros). It's heart-warming to imagine how frenetic-paced, loose-styled programs like Washington, Arizona and Oregon are going to match up in a couple of years (even next year), when UCLA is 13-deep, able to play a pressure-style of defense, get turnovers and get out and run more – but continue to play a good, disciplined defense and structured half-court offense. If this is the best the Pac-10 has to throw at UCLA, it's exciting to think what a Howland-coached team with deep talent is going to be like in this conference over the next few years.